Suellen Escribano was born in Igbaras, Iloilo, where the Escribanos originally came from. But she grew up in Tacurong, Cotabato (now Sultan Kudarat) when the family moved following her father’s assignment to a post there. A captain in the Philippine army, he later became mayor of Tacurong for several terms. He was believed to be killed by political rivals in 1984.
Suellen studied high school in Maryknoll College (now Miriam College), one of the exclusive girls’ schools in Manila. Very creative and artistically inclined,she took up Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City a few years later.
In UP, Suellen was a popular UP coed, a “fashionista” in today’s terms, and one of the few who drove her own “snazzy blue” car. She joined the Sigma Delta Phi sorority in 1963 which was particularly known as an exponent of dramatics and fine arts. Suellen got involved in the production of musicals. She eventually married a fraternity brother with whom she had a daughter and a son.
History of political involvement
With the growing dissent against the Marcos government and its policies in the late ‘60s, Suellen’s life began to undergo a transformation. Drawn into activism by prominent activists from her sorority – Nelia Sancho and Elisa Tita Lubi as well as fraternity brother, Behn Cervantes (Bantayog honouree), she was soon joining discussion groups and teach-ins about the problems of the country and the issues hounding the Marcos government. She went on social immersions in farming communities in Southern Tagalog. This quickly led to Suellen’s political enlightenment. Upon her return, she would enthusiastically share her insights and recommendations with other activists for a more effective social involvement with the farmers. Soon, she was getting more and more occupied with the activists’ activities.
Friends say martial law changed Suellen’s life forever. A good friend, Sylvia Amos-Ty, recalls of Suellen’s transformation from party girl to committed activist:
“…Suellen was a puzzlement to me. When I first met her she was one of the campus figures in UP, a fashion plate driving her own car, a spoiled rich kid, daughter of a Mayor and used to the good things in life… I was surprised one day when she appeared at my house, no car, disheveled and weary looking and I began to understand why, when we sat down and I listened to her story…. She was exposed to the poor and needy and she wanted so much to be able to do something to better their plight. With the corruption and repression going on unabatedly and blatantly by no less than the people in power, she knew the only thing to be done was to involve herself in the struggle to change the system of government and expose and help dismantle the Marcos dictatorship.”
Suellen started her work in the anti-dictatorship movement by using her skill as a visual artist to tell the real story of what was happening in the country. She painted scenes that reflected the economic disparity that affected the life of the impoverished, for example, of farmers and workers who toil and labor in the fields and factories despite meager earnings and difficult working conditions, and of the impact of landlessness that brought poverty, ill health and malnutrition to the peasants’ children and their families. These she painstakingly hand painted on katsa (cheese cloth) for use as instructional aid in mass education sessions in the urban and rural areas.
Using her knowledge of commercial art, she helped raise funds to send food and other supplies to activists in the provinces. She would enlist the help of other artists from advertising agencies and cartoonists in designing and making Christmas decorations which she will offer to the offices of big corporations.
After she separated from her husband, Suellen went to the rural areas of Southern Tagalog and in the Quezon-Bicol border area to help raise the awareness of farmers and settlers of the ills of martial rule. TheQuezon-Bicol border area was a frontier area. Many poor people from Luzon and even from the Visayas and Mindanao had come to settle here years before to have land of their own. They cleared the lands and planted coconuts, rice and other crops but now that the lands were yielding, the settlers were being victimized by land-grabbers and speculators reportedly with the backing of government authorities. Soldiers often came to terrorize and cow the settlers to make them submit.
Suellen and the other activists organized the settlers to help empower them to resist abuse. She went about the sitios in the frontier area and talked with the people about the problems of the country, of the repression and oppression happening all around, of the unabashed greed and plunder by the nation’s ruler. Using her creative skills, she helped the people understand why the dictatorship had to be resisted.
Here, Suellen especially sought out the young women. She helped train those with aptitude to be barefoot doctors, para-teachers and/or cultural workers.Together, the activists and the settlers worked on projects to help improve their lot. Life was tough in the frontier – food was scarce, the work grueling, but fellow activists said Suellen was cheerful as she egged everybody to do their tasks well.
She even brought her children with her, kids used to the good life, to make them aware of the plight of the peasants. At that time and in the same area, another activist, Maita Gomez (Bantayog honoree) and her husbandwere also working with the peasants, agricultural workers and settlers.
She also worked with Horacio “Boy” Morales (Bantayog honoree, 2015) for some time after he defected to the anti-Marcos movement in 1977, helping in the forging of a united front of all anti-dictatorship forces.
In the early 80’s, as people got more emboldened in the struggle against the dictatorship, she came back to Manila and joined BAYAN and the women’s group GABRIELA. She worked mostly with professionals, corporate employees and others from the middle class and brought them into the anti-dictatorship movement. She attended rallies and gave aid to victims of human rights violations under martial law; and did jail visit and support work for political prisoners in Camp Bagong Diwa. This was where she met Manuel Chiongson who became her partner after he was released from detention. They had a daughter.
Suellen likewise worked well with and provided guidance to younger activists. One of them was Marcial (Chuck) Anastacio, a known troublemaker in a family of activists. Anastacio was introduced by a cousin to Suellen whose quiet intelligence, calmness and humility while debating with him on social issues as well as life story of transformation and service to people inspired him to think beyond himself. He later joined the underground resistance movement and was killed in 1982. He would be recognized by Bantayog as a martial law martyr in 2016.
After the fall of the dictatorship in 1986, Suellen’s family moved back to Tacurong where she and husband Manny Chiongson set up a farmers’ organization which aimed to organize farmers to fight for land rights, develop agricultural production and build cooperatives to help them improve their quality of life.
She also tried going into the electoral struggle and ran for Sultan Kudarat governor in 1992 under the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) party. In sorties, she captivated the people with her fiery speeches and kindheartedness, but having neither guns, goons or gold, she lost her bid.
Circumstances of death
The following year, Suellen fell ill and was confined at the Philippine General Hospital in Manila. She passed away on June 12, 1993, from sepsis or general breakdown of internal organs due to blood poisoning. She was 48 years old.
Impact of life on family and the community
Her family held a brief wake for her in Quezon City and then took her body back to Tacurong for the burial. Family and friends were joined by an immense turn-out of Tacurong’s peasants and community folk, who expressed their affection and gratitude for Suellen’s efforts to help improve their lives on the placards and banners they carried during the funeral procession. On her gravestone her husband had engraved, “Freedom Fighter,” as a testament to his and the people’s resolve to never accept another one-man rule.
In the retelling of Suellen’s story, her family and friends cannot help but be amazed by her life’s journey. It was evident that the life of privilege she grew up in was never a hindrance in making her heed the call of the times.
A former high school classmate and sorority sister, Cecile Ascalon, in a letter sent to Bantayog, summons up the memories:“ In UP Suellen drove around in a snazzy blue car. She was young, beautiful and talented… I don’t remember when she became a tried and true activist. But I knew she talked of helping the people… she established cooperatives so the people can help themselves… joined the underground [movement]… survived on bananas and bayawaks, slept on the hard ground, washed in rivers, had to ran away from the military…”
Nelia Sancho remarked on her deep sympathy for the poor and oppressed: “It is this humanistic character in Suellen that drove her to immerse herself in the countryside, to learn more about how the situation of farmers can be better if land reform can be developed as a solution to landlessness.”
Suellen’s daughter Aba, who often had to endure long stretches of time away from her, is proud of her mother’s legacy. She says that while her mother can be a disciplinarian, she was also her biggest fan, Aba having inherited her mother’s artistic talents. She says she grew up knowing about those dark, turbulent martial law years because of her mother, and credits her for her own strong conviction against a return of dictatorial rule.
Another fellow activist, Reynaldo Hababag, offered this tribute: “ …what word can be used to describe a woman, a single parent, who was both mother and crusader for the cause of her country and people? To inscribe her name on the hallowed walls of the Bantayog Ng Mga Bayani would be a fitting tribute to her selflessness, sacrifice, bravery and devotion to the welfare of the oppressed.
Elisa Lubi, fellow Sigma Deltan and human rights advocate, in a narrative sent to Bantayog for Suellen’s nomination to the roster of martyrs and heroes, concludes with this poignant account of Suellen’s sacrifice: “[After she died], there was a problem in recovering her body from the hospital morgue because the family did not have enough to cover hospital expenses. Sorority sisters, fraternity brothers and friends got together to raise the needed funds. Suellen, at the end, became like one of her farmer comrades and friends — a far cry and so different from the young Suellen, the campus rich girl and mayor’s daughter. Suellen should be among the martyrs and heroes being awarded recognition by Bantayog.”